human rights?

Ethiopia: New scheme to export maids to Saudi Arabia after ban due to rights abuses lifted

By Samuel Getachew

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Posted on June 1, 2023 15:35

 © Ethiopian immigrants returning from Saudi Arabia arrive at Addis Ababa’s Bole International Airport, 2013. (AFP/Jenny Vaughan)
Ethiopian immigrants returning from Saudi Arabia arrive at Addis Ababa’s Bole International Airport, 2013. (AFP/Jenny Vaughan)

Ethiopia has started a scheme to send 500,000 house maids to Saudi Arabia, swallowing its concerns over human rights abuses in a bid to tackle depressed foreign currency reserves and inject vitality into key economic sectors.

Last month, the Ethiopian Disaster Risk Management government office declared the end of an assisted repatriation of Ethiopian migrants’ programme, which had brought home more than 130,000 citizens.

The move followed depressing images of Ethiopian citizens who had been subjected to cruel abuse in Saudi Arabia jails and homes, intensifying pressure on the central government in Addis Ababa to act swiftly.

Black market

The new plan, which began in April, seeks to have all workers sent through a new arrangement between the governments of Ethiopia and Saudi Arabia to stimulate sluggish economic growth.

It will require all salaries to be sent to local Ethiopian banks and have all government-sponsored domestic workers paid in Ethiopian Birr exclusively, a maneuver that will stem the parallel black market, which is commonly used across the country. Local currency there is exchanged at almost double the official rate.

For an import-dependent nation like Ethiopia where illicit financial flows are a recurring issue, this move is an effort to earn forex as it faces chronic shortages to lure foreign investments and pay its international debt.

While this return to sending young Ethiopian maids over to The Kingdom could help forex, the risk of human rights abuses, again, is quite high.

However, when human rights groups Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission were contacted by The Africa Report, each organisation refused to comment.

Economic dip due to loss of AGOA

The government admitted in May that the two-year civil war in Tigray and surrounding regions has cost it more than $28bn and faces a host of domestic challenges, including a record deficit and high inflation.

Its once-utilised industrial parks that created thousands of jobs for young people have been abandoned by foreign investors, largely because of the cancellation of the AGOA (African Growth and Opportunity Act) agreement. AGOA gave investors trading privileges with the US.

Tigist Belachew, 23, worked in Hawassa Industrial Park in the Amhara region as a factory worker for a Bangladeshi subsidiary company. She helped make T-shirts and hoped her hard work would net her better perks and career mobility.

However, after working for four years, she was abruptly laid off, as the company she worked for decided to abandon its operations in Ethiopia.

Greener pastures?

For more than a year, Belachew looked for alternative work, but the only available occupation was that of a waitress at a restaurant. The new employer paid her peanuts. She exhausted her savings and later considered taking an illegal route to Libya, then on to Europe in search of greener pastures.

She heard about the opportunity to migrate to Saudi Arabia from a neighbour’s friend.

“To me, anything is better than what I am experiencing at the moment with no real employment to help myself and my siblings. I want to leave Ethiopia, work hard, send money to help my siblings and hopefully give them quality education and financial aid,” Belachew tells The Africa Report.

“For the moment, I do not have the luxury of helping my immediate family but would like to change that trajectory,” Belachew says as she waited in a long queue to apply for a passport at the Department for Immigration and National Affairs office.

While her potential migration to Saudi Arabia will follow legal channels, thousands of Ethiopians have taken a perilous and costly route through Somaliland and Yemen to reach the oil-rich Kingdom, while others have faced calamities while attempting to cross over into Europe illegally.

Senait Asnake, a 27-year-old from Adama, located on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, embarked on the illegal journey two times. In 2018, she left through neighbouring Djibouti but was caught at the border, beaten by border guards, and sent back to Ethiopia.

Bribing one’s way

Within a week, Asnake paid a smuggler to help her cross again into Djibouti, having toiled for months only to part with her savings to bribe her way to Saudi Arabia.

Asnake was caught during her first month in Saudi Arabia and detained before being sent back to Addis Ababa through the assistance of the government and the UN migration agency, International Organization of Migration (IOM).

There have been thousands like her who have returned physically and financially abused, some in coffins. There have been persistent complaints of no legal rights for workers, poor working conditions and employers often confiscating passports under the Kafla system.

In 2013, the Ethiopian government temporarily banned and cancelled the visas of thousands of Saudi Arabia-bound workers and called for better working conditions after videos circulated on social media of Ethiopian migrant abuse.

“I had almost given up. I was working in nightclubs at night, jumping from one to the other for better working conditions, often vulnerable with little protection and non-existent opportunities. Securing legal work in Saudi Arabia is a mirage,” Asnake tells The Africa Report, adding that the majority of her friends have been stuck in Saudi prisons with limited chances of either working there or being assisted by the Ethiopian government.

‘Legally or illegally’

A frail-looking 19-year-old who requests to remain anonymous tells The Africa Report that if she does not succeed with the government programme, she has saved enough to use the illegal channel for migrating to Saudi Arabia in search of work.

“I don’t want to live in poverty (in Ethiopia). I would rather try my luck elsewhere legally or illegally and be rich,” she says, several steps away from the immigration office where she hopes to get her passport and apply for the programme.

Illegal migration has been discouraged by many nations and regional blocs, including the European Union in Ethiopia, which has been active in helping to create jobs locally in order to help prevent illegal migration.

There are now billboards highlighting the perils of clandestine migration. Famous musicians commissioned by European funders have composed persuasive songs that speak of the danger and risks but the effort has received lukewarm support while its impact on the ground has been negligible.

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